The United States has internationally committed to the goal of reducing anthropogenic emissions of climate change causing greenhouse gases by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading international scientific climate change authority, says that industrialized nations must reduce their emissions from 1990 levels by 25 to 40% by 2020 in order to remain on track to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels—the temperature increase that scientists, policy experts, and governments have agreed is the safe upper limit. For the United States, this would mean a 36-49% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels—more than double our current emissions goal. Since the United States is the greatest historical contributor to human-induced climate change, the current second highest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, and an important international leader, we have a duty to act boldly and decisively if the world and the American people are to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of a warmer planet.
More than simply achieving emissions reductions of insufficient magnitude given the scope of the climate crisis, President Obama’s “Climate Action Plan” and “all-of-the-above” energy strategy fall short in three critical areas:
A) Relying on Risky Technologies
The President’s plans prop up technologies, such as natural gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, offshore drilling in the Arctic, coal with carbon capture and sequestration, and nuclear power, that do not provide enough benefits relative to their inherent risks. They also underplay the potential for a robust and achievable renewable energy economy that has the possibility to produce real economic savings for the American people.
If the entire world transitioned fully from coal to natural gas generation, temperatures would increase by an unacceptable 3.5˚C from 2000 levels by 2200. It is irresponsible to promote a strategy domestically that would globally lead to catastrophic levels of warming. The possibility of high methane leakage rates further undermines natural gas’s potential as a “bridge fuel” to a low emissions future.
Offshore drilling accidents represent an unacceptable risk to coastal communities, such as those impacted by the Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, and recent Thailand oil spills. The White House’s strategy to drill in the Arctic, where the remote location makes cleanup from an oil spill exceptionally difficult, is irresponsible and threatens its unique ecosystems.
Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS)
Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) cannot become a commercial success without a greenhouse gas fee of at least $50/tCO2e. Should such an incentive exist, other potential limitations, such as maintaining geological stability over long time scales, may still limit CCS deployment. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, CCS might provide 14% of cumulative emissions reductions through 2050, which highlights its limited potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
Nuclear energy in the U.S. commonly exhibits cost overruns unattractive to potential investors–it is not viable without government loan guarantees, subsidies, and liability caps. The prospect of meltdown, lack of a long-term waste disposal strategy, weapons proliferation, and terrorist threats further contribute to nuclear power’s excessive and unnecessary risks.
We call for President Obama to acknowledge the limitations of these risky technologies and implement the following forward-looking policies to effectively mitigate greenhouse gases:
Implement technology standards along natural gas production, transmission, and distribution networks, as well as coal mines, to capture fugitive methane
Pass a domestic ban on Arctic drilling and push for an international ban through the Arctic Council
Shift federal loan guarantees from solely being available to “advanced fossil energy projects” like CCS and towards renewable energy, energy efficiency, and transportation innovations
B) The Great Transportation Transition
The transportation initiatives in the President’s Climate Action Plan lack specificity and ambition. We can and must do better. Reimagining our transportation systems will mitigate emissions, invigorate our nation’s economy, empower working class Americans, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and make our communities more resilient. The White House gives no mention of improving the efficiency of or expanding public transportation options, investing in high-speed transportation, or funding advanced transportation innovations in its plan.
The White House plan calls for converting our nation’s transportation fleets to run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), but because of the high uncertainty of current methane leakage rates, this is not a good bet for the climate. Unless leakage rates are kept low, converting our nation’s cars and trucks to run on natural gas will actually have more of a warming impact than the conventional fuel supply. The Administration also vaguely endorses “advanced” biofuels without specifics on what types of technologies are “advanced,” whether there will be stricter requirements for lifetime carbon footprints of fuels, whether we will continue to support fuels that compete with food crops for land and raise prices, in which sectors the use of biofuels will be pursued, and how the government will support these technologies.
Instead of these lackluster proposals, we can embrace a new transportation future by investing in:
High-speed transportation solutions
Research and development for promising technology alternatives like:
Advanced battery technologies
Investments of around $30 billion over 20 years could double the expected rate in ridership growth for U.S. public transit. Combining this with changes in land use, expansion of bike lanes, and improvements in pedestrian conditions, transportation sector emissions could be reduced by 3-10% by 2050. If we invest strongly in battery technologies and green our electricity grid, running 56% of light-duty on electricity could result in at least 26-30% reductions in transportation emissions by 2050. Expanding research for developing more low-emissions liquid fuels like “advanced biofuels” and liquid hydrogen, as well as repealing the corn ethanol standard, will allow for more fair competition in the fuels market with the potential for real solutions to win out.
C) Ending Emissions Exports & Improving International Impact
The Administration’s plan does very little to control our fossil fuel exports or support the work of reducing emissions in other countries. As it is presented, the President’s “climate policy” could potentially increase overall global warming pollution, even if our domestic emissions fall. This is in part due to the fact that U.S. exports of coal and natural gas are projected to grow significantly in the near future. The President is calling for “an end to U.S. government support for public financing of new coal plants overseas,” yet he still seems poised to approve major coal export projects to supply growing demand in Asian markets. With respect to natural gas, President Obama continues to “promote fuel-switching from coal to gas for electricity production and encourage the development of a global market for gas” through the Unconventional Gas Technical Exchange Program (UGTEP) and will “encourage the adoption of heavy duty natural gas vehicles as well” despite both the dubious climate benefits that may come from this globally and the fact that methane leakages are even greater for exported natural gas. Lastly, while the Obama Administration has made commendable progress with clean energy financing by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Trade and Development Agency, the U.S. Export-Import Bank still finances many fossil fuel projects abroad. In 2012 the Export-Import Bank financed $356 million in renewables projects and a record $9.6 billion in fossil fuel projects.
In order to discourage exporting our emissions to the global community and to encourage international adoption of renewable energy solutions, we call on President Obama to:
Eliminate UGTEP and replace it with the Global Renewable Energy and Efficiency Exchange Network (G.R.E.E.E.N.) to encourage an international transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy
Reject fossil fuel export projects that would significantly contribute to greenhouse gas pollution through his authority under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA)
Direct the Export-Import Bank to transition its financing from fossil fuel projects to low-emissions energy development
Ensure that the value of exported fossil fuels contains the cost of greenhouse gas emissions through reformation of the fossil fuel auction process (in the absence of a Greenhouse Gas Fee)
A Comprehensive Energy Strategy: The Three Key Problems
The Obama Administration’s Climate Action Plan boasts that the energy security of the United States is higher than “at any time in recent history.” Two factors are responsible for this: increased domestic oil production and decreased consumption. Implicit is the assumption that falling oil imports is a primary goal of United States energy policy. However, true energy security must tackle three key areas inadequately addressed by the status quo:
(1) Current Account Deficits (when imports of goods and services exceeds exports) and Reliance on Foreign Sources of Energy
(2) Vulnerability to Global Oil Price Spikes
(3) Global Warming Pollution.
A strategy solely focused on lowering net oil imports ameliorates (1) by reducing the amount of oil we purchase abroad, especially from hostile or politically unstable governments. (2) would be unaffected because oil is a globally traded commodity. According to RAND, a prominent U.S.-based research institution, “an abrupt and extended fall in the global oil supply and the resulting higher prices would seriously disrupt U.S. economic activity, no matter how much or how little oil the United States imports.”20 Finally, we can be sure that dramatically increasing domestic oil production will increase greenhouse gas pollution that exacerbates (3). Thus, efforts to increase U.S. supply fail to address all three important areas. The United States must instead enact policies to reduce overall oil consumption, not simply net imports, in order to pursue the goal of energy independence while protecting consumers from global oil price shocks and mitigating global warming pollution. Enacting our proposed energy strategy represents a three-for-one opportunity that the American people cannot afford to squander.